Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

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entire contents copyright 2011 by Tony Annicone

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

Reviewed by Tony Annicone

Next Door Center for the Arts in Winchester's first show this season is "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee". The show is a 90 minute musical comedy with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. The show centers around a fictional spelling bee set in a geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley Middle School. While the title tells you the plot, the play is character driven. Six quirky adolescents compete in the Bee, run by three equally quirky adults. The children are in the throes of puberty, overseen by grown-ups who barely managed to escape childhood themselves. The kids learn that winning isn't everything and that losing doesn't necessarily make you a loser. An unusual aspect of this show is that four real audience members are invited to compete in the spelling bee on stage alongside the six young characters. Another amusing aspect of the show is that the official announcer of the words, Mr. Panch supplies ridiculous usage-in-a-sentence examples when asked to use the words in a sentence which makes him as helpfully unhelpful as possible. The 2005 Broadway show was directed by James Lapine, was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two, including Best Book of a Musical. Director James Tallach picks the best 9 performers for these 17 roles and they are rewarded with a thunderous ovation at the end of the show.

James gives his cast clever comic bits to do to make the audience laugh out loud at their zany antics. He always brings out the best in his performers and this show is no exception to that rule. James' topnotch blocking and keen eye for comedy keeps the show fast paced from start to finish. He has the audience spellers interact and dance with cast. The important ingredient in the show is audience interaction. The first cast member eliminated has to sell refreshments to the crowd with the person throwing candy into the audience which is hilarious. Musical director Brendan Kenney conducts a 3 piece orchestra, plays the lead keyboards and makes the cast shine with his musical expertise. His cast has some of the best voices around with soaring harmonies and topnotch vocals by each and everyone of them. Sarajane Mullins dance numbers are splendid and include a tap dance, kick line, the Charleston, a foot dance and a romantic child dance ala Fred and Ginger Set designer Brian Milauskas creates a realistic gym set for the show, making the audience feel like they are back in a real school building.

The three adults in this show are marvelous. Kendra Alati as Rona steals many a scene with her portrayal and marvelous voice. Rona Peretti is the number 1 realtor in Putnam County. Kendra is a lovely brunette whose character is warm and sweet with the children but stern with Mr. Panch who has crush on her. Her awesome voice is heard in "Spelling Bee Rules" and "My Favorite Moment of the Bee" which in her case is the moment before the show when all the children are filled with the joy of competition and everyone has a chance to win it. Rona reveals she won the Third Annual spelling bee years ago by spelling syzygy during the opening song "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" which sounds like "On the Twentieth Century". Kendra handles this comic role with ease and is dynamite as Rona.Kendall Hodder is very comical as Mr. Panch. He is the vice-principal who has a crush on Rona. He wears a suit with ugly plaid pants. Panch returns to the contest after a five year absence after an "incident" at the 20th Bee and is getting better on a high fiber diet and Jungian analysis. Mr. Panch is the announcer of the words and his funny definitions and usage in sentences are hilarious. Kendall sings in several numbers including "Goodbye" and in "Pandemonium". Mike Levesque is terrific as Mitch Mahoney, an ex-convict who is now doing community service as the comfort counselor. Mitch who is dressed like a thug from New York, hands out juice boxes to the losing students. Mike's splendid tenor voice soars in his song "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" and Pandemonium" reprise which is a scat number with the cast doing a dance to it. Kendra and Mike also play Olive's parents in the most poignant song in the show "I Love You Song" with Sarajane Mullins.

The performers who play the students are outstanding, too. Sarajane Mullins plays Olive Ostrovsky, a newcomer to the Spelling Bee. Olive loves to study words and their definitions. She read the entire dictionary as a child while sitting on the toilet. Sarajane is a gorgeous red head with a splendid soprano voice which soars in "My Friend, My Dictionary". She has many funny moments in the show but her show stopping number is the "I Love You Song" where she imagines her parents are at the Bee with her. The fantastic three part harmony tugs the heartstrings of the audience evoking tears from them and has a touching dance with William. I last reviewed Sarajane as Sister Amnesia in "Nunsense" at Next Door last year. Leaf Coneybear is excellently played by Keil Coit. Leaf has hippie parents and makes his own clothes, wearing a blanket cape and helmet. Keil sings "I'm Not That Smart" because his family doesn't think he is bright. Leaf explains that he is easily distracted but spells the words correctly while he's in a spooky trance. Keil has a splendid tenor voice and is a hoot as Leaf who finally realizes he is smart after all. Ronny Pompeo is marvelous as William Barfee. He was Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist last year but was eliminated because of an allergic reaction to peanuts. Ronny wears glasses and is dressed like a nerd. William has a famous method which brings him to spelling glory even though he only has one working nostril. He also has a touchy personality, continually correcting Panch on the pronunciation of Barfee. Ronny sings "Magic Foot" where he spells the words out on the floor with his foot while doing a song and tap dance while the cast does a kick line behind him. He and Sarajane have a touching dance in the show ala Fred and Ginger near the end of the show.

Matt Phillips is wonderful as Chip Tolentino who is a boy scout and champion of the 24th Annual Spelling Bee. He has the funniest song in the show called "Chip's Lament" which is also known as "My Unfortunate Erection". Matt makes this song hilarious as he sings it was his penis not his brain that is at fault. He blames Marigold Coneybear for it. He has a powerful singing voice.Alaina Fragoso plays Logainne who has two gay men as fathers. The character is a bit of a neat freak and speaks with a lisp. Alaina is marvelous in this role. Logainne becomes upset when her father, Carl deliberately spills coke on the stage floor to try to prevent William from using his magic foot. Alaina sings "Woe Is Me" which is about the problems she faces with having two dads. Mimi Do is wonderful as Marcy Park. Marcy is the poster child for Over-Achievers. She marches to the mike and knows the definition of the word before Panch can give it too her. Marcy wears a Catholic girl's uniform, attends "Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows", speaks six languages and is not allowed to cry. Mimi sings "I Speak Six Languages" which tells of Marcy's prowess at everything. She also has a funny scene with Jesus who appears to her in a moment of crises.

Not wanting to spoil the ending, I can't say anymore about the show except to run and get your tickets before they sell out. The final scene lets the audience know what happened to everyone in the show. So for a fabulous contemporary musical be sure to get to Winchester, before the Bee is over. Tell them Tony sent you.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (7 - 22 October)
@ Next Door Center for the Arts, 40 Cross Street, WINCHESTER MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide